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Will clubs actually be able reopen on 19th July?

After the UK Government delayed the easing of lockdown earlier this month, many clubs were left in financial ruin. Even ahead of the new proposed date for reopening, there remains a lack of communication around the results from their Events Research Programme (ERP), and how things will look when clubs are able to reopen. The Music Venue Trust’s six-point plan has affected positive change from the Government over the last few days, but how are we still in a position where clubs and ravers are left with more questions than answers at a vital time for the scene?

Last week (14th June), Boris Johnson announced that there will be a four-week delay of lockdown easing, with the initial date for the relaxation of social distancing measures in England on 21st June pushed back to 19th July.

While the number of COVID hospitalisations have been at a record low in relation to the number of cases in the UK, the delay comes as the new Delta variant, which now accounts for the majority of coronavirus cases in the UK, spiked 78% in a week. With the majority of those cases detected amongst young people, data analysis from the Guardian revealed that as of last Monday two-thirds of the population in England were “not yet sufficiently vaccinated to protect them against symptomatic infection from the Delta variant”.

Speaking at the press conference where Johnson announced the delay, he explained that the scale of the vaccine rollout made the UK’s position “incomparably better” in the face of the risk of a third wave of infections. And the press conference came just days ahead of an “Olympic effort” that saw stadiums, football grounds, theatres and many other spaces become pop-up vaccination centres, as the UK Government opened up the vaccine programme to anyone over the age of 18.

Speaking about the delay, Johnson continued, "By being cautious now we have the chance — in the next four weeks — to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people. And once the adults of this country have been overwhelmingly vaccinated, which is what we can achieve in a short space of time, we will be in a far stronger position to keep hospitalisations down, to live with this disease, and to complete our cautious but irreversible roadmap to freedom."

As part of the details around the delay, there was clarification on events including Wimbledon, the European Football Championship, and Ascot, which are all able to go ahead with reduced capacity as pilot events in the third phase of the Government’s Events Research Programme. But there remained no clarification around nightclubs. So what does the recent delay mean for clubs? Will they really be able to open on 19th July? If so, what will the nightclub experience look like post-lockdown? And, with coronavirus infections on the rise across the UK, is it sensible to have indoor events involving crowds with no social-distancing yet?

Nick Morgan, CEO of We Are The Fair and We Are Placemaking, has over two decades of experience putting on large-scale events and festivals. He’s currently a member of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport/Public Health England Workforce and is writing coronavirus guidance on a national level. He spoke to DJ Mag about the main challenges that the hospitality industry faces as it looks to reopen.

“One is the open date,” he explains. “I know they’ve suggested the 19th [of July], but historically [it has changed]. In my personal opinion, the biggest concern is that effectively there has been a sea change in public health. Originally it was all around two key metrics: mortality and NHS capacity. I sit on various panels that deal directly with these departments and in the last few weeks, as we all know, we’ve found out that the Delta variant is far more transmissible.”

As with previous lockdown easing, restrictions being eased on 19th July will be subject to the UK Government's four tests. These relate to the vaccine rollout, that the vaccines continue to sufficiently reduce hospitalisations and deaths due to coronavirus, that infection rates do not put the NHS at risk of unsustainable pressure, and the assessment of the risks of new variants of concern. “My biggest fear,” Morgan continues, “is that in two weeks — when there is going to be a growth in cases; we're not going to be able to suppress that — [is that] it’s going to further scare the Government.”

Professor Iain Buchan, a researcher at the University of Liverpool, was responsible for the UK Government’s Events Research Programme (ERP). He says we can take optimism from the COVID pilot studies in Liverpool. These saw more than 13,000 people in the city attend a series of events in April and May to assess the safety of large gatherings with various COVID protocols in place — this included 6,000 people attending club events over two nights with strict testing procedures in place. Liverpool health director Matt Ashton claimed the trials were "undoubtedly a success", as results found "no detectable spread" of coronavirus from the events.

“My impressions professionally of how things went in Liverpool was that it was a very successful outcome, but [the events] were hard work,” Professor Buchan explains. When asked about whether clubs can realistically reopen on 19th July, he continues, “I think there's a strong appetite to serve the local community and their overall public health needs, which include social fabric and mental health and general wellbeing that we all need from getting back to meeting each other at live events.” 

Buchan goes on to point out the public health implications of not reopening the hospitality sector. "There is a cautious optimism of reopening,” he explains. “Certainly in Liverpool — half of our economy is based on visitors, events and hospitality — this is really important for people's livelihoods, which is, in turn, a very important consideration to the public health teams.

“So, balancing the risks and benefits, I think if we have control of rates and they are within an acceptable limit, and there is a clear understanding of the pattern and variants in the community, then I am cautiously optimistic that we can apply the safety net that we built in the ERP going forward.” 

By “safety net”, Buchan means vigorous testing of punters before and after an event. But would it be realistic to scale that up to the number of nightclubs hoping to operate in the UK? “Yes, it is. Realistically, it is technically possible,” Buchan believes. “There is a lot of hard work to put that in place, but we’ve made recommendations from the ERP of how to do that.”

He also says linking ticket sales and test result data will be key to getting clubs back open. “It is technically possible to link the test result and a ticket digitally,” Buchan says. “That is the only feasible way that you’re going to get some national scale.” Creating a system whereby people will have been tested as close to attending the event as possible will also be key, but that does pose a logistical challenge. “Home testing, ideally, would be introduced,” he concludes.

But, despite the perceived success of the Government's ERP programme, club owners still don't know how findings will impact the real world of reopening, once lockdown is eased — months after taking place. Speaking about any guidelines the findings will create for venues to reopen, Mark Davyd, the founder of the Music Venue Trust explains, "No one knows; the Government won't release the findings of ERP, or the data, or confirm what the conclusions were."

This begs the question: why do the ERP pilot events if the results aren’t going to inform how businesses can reopen once lockdown is eased? And if the findings from the programme are to be used, why hasn’t this information been communicated to the venues it matters to the most; in order to prepare adequately by building in any testing procedures or capacity guidelines to make reopening as safe as possible? For venues, surely these are the questions that need to be answered before any confirmation of reopening on 19th July can be put in place.

Some details of the results were leaked earlier today (23rd June) by Politico, which reports that a number of safety measures have been proposed for when venues can reopen as part of stage four lockdown easing. These are said to range from mandatory facemasks, controls on alcohol and food sales, and reduced capacities, as well as a proof of vaccination or adhering to testing protocols for attendees. While the Government has said they will publish the results of the ERP “very soon”, MPs including Jo Stevens and Julian Knight have joined the industry in criticising the delay in sharing information that will have a huge financial impact on clubs and venues.

Davyd says the delay to reopening was “quite a devastating blow” to venues — in large part because there was no forewarning that it could happen. “People were ready to go, ready to get restarted,” he said. “Now there’s this barrier where things can’t get rescheduled because there’s nowhere to reschedule to. Effectively, four weeks of activity, four weeks of shows are now cancelled. In the live music sector that’s the equivalent of losing £36 million.”

Cameron Leslie, co-founder of London’s Fabric, described the “financial ruin” many clubs face following the delay to 19th July in The Telegraph last week (18th June), while UK Hospitality warned it could “push many businesses closer to the cliff edge of failure”. A statement from them adds, “The ongoing uncertainty around the road map is causing significant distress to hospitality businesses and operators.”

The impact on many clubs is not just that they can’t reopen on 21st June, but that they now won’t be able to reopen at all. “There are a lot of immediate problems like the threat of evictions for unpaid rent,” Davyd explains. “Some of it is now being tackled by Government actions, we’ve just seen a moratorium [temporary ban] on evictions, some of it is still up in the air. The industry needs a sector-specific financial support package. We’re currently working with the Government to see how quickly we can get that out and what it will look like. Just before the announcement, we were already looking at 200 venues potentially facing immediate eviction.”

Earlier this month (June), The Music Venue Trust issued a six-point plan for the Government explaining things that they needed to do. “By Wednesday they had acted on evictions with a moratorium [temporary ban] on any commercial tenants being evicted until March next year,” Davyd explains. “Which gives us a lot of time to bargain with landlords and do a lot of work and keep people open.”

But the main challenge that venues face now is debt, which the Government is yet to address, making it essential that they provide a sector-specific financial package. “There are a large number of venues that have had to enter into debt to prepare for reopening,” he continued. “And they need to negotiate with all their creditors, like breweries and suppliers for all products down to loo rolls. People want their money, but the venues aren’t now going to be open to generate enough money to give it to them.”

Nick Morgan agrees. “At the moment the Government isn’t committed to underwriting any costs,” he explains. Is this because they don’t value the cultural capital and indirect revenue that electronic music culture brings into the country? “Definitely, the parallels are Germany and the Netherlands, they categorically understand that. They’re in a far worse position in terms of their vaccination programme than we are and yet, they've got guarantees of opening dates, huge financial support packages and protected status. It’s a complete juxtaposition for the UK; we’re winning the vaccination programme, yet the support is limited and there’s no confidence about reopening. I just feel that the Government, for whatever reason, has no interest even though we’re worth billions of pounds supporting it.”

Last summer, Euan Johnson founded an entity called Full Capacity alongside leading figures from across the private hospitality sector to try and work out how to navigate the ongoing crisis. They set up their own pilot studies which were approved by the Government until the second wave hit. They’re still looking to have the pilots, but in the meantime they’ve been concentrating on the technology that’s going to be essential when the industry is unlocked. 

“Our businesses have been shut for over a year,” Johnson explains. “They are going to continue to be seriously restricted for a long time. What we need to open and operate is the ability to stop it [COVID] at the door.”

The first port of call is testing, the second is all about ventilation and recirculating the air inside venues. “One of the safest ways to secure buildings is through air movement, air ventilation and purification,” Johnson explains. “It's an airborne virus. If you’re moving 13 litres [of air] per second per person out of a building or a nightclub, you're pretty much good to go. If you could then combine that with a pre-event test, which can be done at home, via an app on your phone, then we’re in a pretty good position.”

Nobody, including the Government, knows if the clubs will be able to re-open on 19th July safely yet. The unknown of how the vaccine programme will actually impact the four tests for lockdown easing is another unfortunate aspect of the pandemic. But if they do, it is clear that it will take a combination of factors and guidelines to do so safely. The lack of clarity as to how this is planned to look once it can happen — will there be capacity restrictions? Or testing requirements for entry? — just weeks before the proposed opening date in England, means clubs and punters remain with more questions than answers at a crucial time for the scene.

(Photos: Printworks, Corsica, Kings, Fold, Hope Works)

Want more? Read our recent feature on how Ibiza's nightlife plans to reopen safely

Simon Doherty is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @oldspeak1